Town Councilman Zach Cummings is hoping Leesburg can continue to support its struggling small business community in 2021.
Cummings has proposed a Pandemic Business Assistance and Recovery Plan that is expected to be discussed by the full council Tuesday night. The plan proposes ways to use $1 million from the town’s unassigned fund balance to benefit local businesses.
Explaining his impetus for proposing the plan, Cummings points to the many conversations he had with small business owners last year as he campaigned.
“The big thing we all know is we’re not in the clear yet,” he said of the pandemic and its economic impacts.
He said as he and council members Ara Bagdasarian and Kari Nacy spent time together during new council member orientation following their November wins he proposed they put together a plan for the entire council to consider.
“The original intent of that [federal CARES Act] money was to go towards our small businesses,” Cummings said. “The big thing I had heard was by this point every business has really pivoted.
If they’re going to exist in the future, they’ve pivoted to something. Money will be helpful.”
Last year, the council used the majority of its CARES Act funding to distribute just under $3 million to 344 town businesses in two rounds of grants, with awarded amounts based on a business’ annual gross receipts. CARES funding was also used to award $1.4 million in grants to 27 nonprofits, in addition to reimbursements for COVID-19-related town government expenses. But even with those allocations, almost $4 million of the town’s awarded $9.8 million remained by the end of the calendar year, when all CARES funds were required to be spent. A majority of the council somewhat reluctantly agreed to set the remaining funds aside to reimburse the town for eligible police department salaries, though a council vote recommended that the funding not be used until after the annual audit is completed later this year. That vote, however, is non-binding, and does not tie the current council to follow through on that recommendation.
Cummings’ proposal recommends that $1.1 million be allocated from the town’s unassigned fund balance to fund a variety of initiatives. Most notably, this would include $500,000 for another round of $5,000 or $10,000 small business grants, if a business meets certain stipulations. Another $500,000 would be earmarked for an Economic Recovery Fund for town businesses. That proposal relies on the Economic Development Department to help create this program.
“In order to help understand the best use of these recovery funds, the Town Council shall direct the Economic Development Commission, led by the Economic Development team, to facilitate input from the business community on anticipated challenges to a full and strong recovery following the winter months. Economic Development staff will need to bring their recovery plan recommendations back to Town Council for consultation,” the staff report reads.
Also included is $25,000 to close the block of King Street between Market and Loudoun streets for a total of 17 days, at a cost of $1,400/day, to allow for expanded sidewalk dining on weekends. Cummings has suggested that Valentine’s Day weekend may be a good wintertime opportunity to spur activity downtown. He has also asked to set aside $50,000 for more grants for the purchase or rental of heaters, tents or outdoor furniture. Last year, a similar grant program yielded more than $72,000 in reimbursement requests from local businesses.
The proposal also earmarks $25,000 be awarded to the Small Business Development Center. This would allow the SBDC staff “to work in conjunction with the Leesburg Economic Development staff to assist Leesburg businesses applying for the Paycheck Protection Program with the federal government as well as other federal, state, and county funding opportunities. Additionally, the SBDC will work with Leesburg businesses to create a plan to maximize their efforts leading into the recovery phase,” according to a staff report.
Finally, Cummings’ proposal recommends halting collection of penalties and/or associated fees for late payment for any business that is currently delinquent on any fees or taxes owed to the Town of Leesburg, as long as the business enters into a written payment plan to pay what is owed by the end of the fiscal year, or by June 30.
“I look at all this money as an investment in a revenue stream,” Cummings said of the plan. He points out how 31% of the town government’s revenue comes from meals and beverage tax, sales and use tax, and other local taxes.
“All of those are directly related to businesses and small businesses in Leesburg,” he said.
Cummings is hopeful there is council support moving the plan forward, but insists he does not want this to be his own initiative.
“It doesn’t have to be my plan,” he said. “If it’s going to be the Town Council’s plan, I want their input.”